The Importance of Taking Time to Look

While the advent of 35mm roll film cameras heralded a whole new era in photography, the emergence of digital photography has done the same. One casualty of the ever-increasing ease in picture-taking is the time we spend looking at the scene in front of us before we press the shutter. This hurry-up approach was as true when 35mm cameras were first introduced to the marketplace as it is today. Put a digital camera in my hands, and I’ll click away quickly and thoughtlessly with the best of them. (Burst mode, anyone?!)

However the benefits of slowing down, of first spending time just looking at what is in front of us before we shoot, should not be ignored. This was brought home to me when I read “The Most Powerful Artwork I Have Ever Seen”, an article about cave paintings by art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz and his wife visited the Niaux Caves in France in 2008, and the experience  became a seminal moment for him in his understanding of art. The part of the article that spoke to me about the importance of spending time looking, though, was the following excerpt:

“…we came to what felt like a large, irregularly shaped cavern. I can still feel cool currents on my face. We were in the “Salon noir.” Everything remained silent; our guide pointed her light to the ground so our eyes could adjust. After a moment, she wordlessly shined the beam upward. A never-ending clap of thunder sounded inside me; one reality was replaced by another…th-1

Nothing [in the paintings I was looking at] seemed only imagined; everything felt observed, studied, thought about, recorded.

These are the paintings of people who looked at mammals for over 30,000 years – far longer than all of recorded history combined. I was seeing visual wisdom, the hard work of looking and taking the time and trouble to make exact renditions of what one watched. Looking at these images, I began to know things we don’t know anymore but still know in our bones. These astounding levels of visual intelligence tell me that had these people wanted to make only symbolic images of their mysticism and magic, they could have…The clap of thunder that sounded for me in the caves was that the world outside and around these people was the same as the world that was inside them.”th-2

How odd it seems that today’s art students need to be taught to “learn to see”, when this was a fundamental requirement for survival for the earliest humans. Observing the color and shape of things, the ebb and flow of weather and tides, the behavior of prey, tasting unfamiliar plants and animals to see if they were edible- doing all of this built up a body of knowledge that enabled Homo sapiens to thrive. They thus gained the kind of innate understanding about their world that most of us sorely lack in the 21st century.

One of the reasons I like working with large- and medium-format cameras is that they require me to slow down. I simply can’t work quickly with them. They demand that I consider carefully the scene in front of me, which is not something that happens with smaller, lighter cameras. Sometimes I will spend long hours looking for a shot that eludes me, and I won’t make any exposures. But that time is not wasted, for it gives me practice in looking, and, hopefully, seeing. Taking the time to be fully present in the world around me is something I should be doing on a daily basis. And slowing down, regardless of the type of camera I have in my hands, would benefit my work greatly.

Optimism & Creativity

Ever since I first learned the meaning of the words “optimism” and “pessimism”, I have known that I am an optimist. Even when things are at their worst, I am still, at my core, an optimist. That is why this quote from the great Nelson Mandela resonates with me:

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”

Being optimistic has helped me creatively in two ways: 1.) It has enabled me to harness fear in a constructive way, and 2.) It has given me faith that times of creative drought will eventually lead towards times of fertility. Looking forward while remaining fully in the present is a guiding principle in all that I do.

More Thoughts on Editing

I am currently in the midst of editing down a large number of photographs into a coherent series. It is an overwhelming task at times, as the sheer volume of images (about 1,300 to be specific) can’t be dealt with all at once. This is something that will take time, as my goal is to end up with between 35-70 pictures total. I find that it really helps to edit in small doses, and taking a lot of breaks helps. Sometimes I need to step away from the work for a couple of days in order to recover from the visual overload.

DSC_0225But editing, as I’ve written before, is so important to my creative process that I would never dream of hurrying it up. This was brought home to me when I read an article titled “The Creative Process” in the July/August, 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine. In it, creative people in a range of fields were asked about “the inspiration and evolution of their work.” The whole article was very interesting, but the section that featured short story author Lydia Davis was downright fascinating.

Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, described what her life was like in the fall of 1973 and how she approached her writing early in her career. There followed the first draft of one of the stories she wrote at that time, “In a House Besieged”:

“In a house besieged lived a man and a woman, with two dogs and two cats. There were mice there too, but they were not acknowledged. From the kitchen where they cowered in the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “Smoke,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already at home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged, in a house that belonged to someone else.”

And then appeared the final draft:

“In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.”

What grace the final version has! What clarity, what elegance. Proof positive that excellent editing can strengthen the fruits of one’s creative labors. In the final draft, there are no extraneous words that could distract from the message of the whole. Davis has cut out unnecessary details so that the point of the piece is more easily comprehended. The final version causes the reader to ask questions about what the implications of the story are, instead of answering every question the reader might have had. When editing, what is excluded often determines the strength and meaning of what is included.

And that is exactly the task at hand for me in my editing work. Exactly how many photographs need to be included in order for a sequence of pictures to be maximally strong? Which pictures should be included/excluded? What order should they be in? Those are the questions foremost on my mind as I work through the task at hand.